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Police powers in spotlight

It sounds like a typical play rehearsal at first. “OK, places,” calls Brooke Kiener, a theater instructor at Whitworth University. “Let’s go, guys. Focus.”

But Kiener’s students are preparing an unusual performance. “Crossing the Line” is an amalgam of nine pieces that incorporate dance, monologues, acting and research. It explores issues of police power and citizen oversight that have arisen from the Otto Zehm case – the mentally disabled janitor died after a struggle with police – and other controversies related to law enforcement in Spokane.

“People are going to be expecting … a show with characters and a plot,” Kiener said with a laugh. Instead, “Our structure is our journey during the course of the semester in going through these investigations and creating our play.”

The show will be performed just once – Friday night at CenterStage. The performance will be followed by a talk by Boise’s police ombudsman, Pierce Murphy, a Q-and-A session with Murphy and the cast, and a reception.

Kiener said the play does not deal specifically with Zehm, whose death more than two years ago is still being investigated by the FBI, but it does pose questions about the relationship between a community and its police force, about the use of force, and about checks on police authority.

Still, as the students prepared the play – reviewing records, interviewing police and public officials, and talking to people on the street – the Zehm case emerged repeatedly. “His name was the one that came up most,” Kiener said.

The 12 students acting in the play interviewed Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick, attorneys, a reporter and people on the street. They reviewed documents on police training, use of force, methods used to restrain suspects (hog-tying vs. hobbling) and legal liability.

While students came across police supporters, they also interviewed people who said they distrust officers, believe the worst about their motives, and believe they are unfairly targeted for police attention.

Lexi Scamehorn, a 21-year-old from Tacoma, said that during her street interviews she met young people who were in Riverfront Park during the July 4 protests and arrests who were sharply critical of police.

Their conversations were eye-opening, she said. “I had no idea there were problems like this in the community.”

Mark Frazier, 19, of Bend, Ore., accompanied an officer on a ride-along to get a police perspective. “He was a really good guy,” Frazier said.

The idea for the play originated with Carissa Greenberg, a Gonzaga University law student and intern at the Center for Justice, a nonprofit law firm. Greenberg, who has an undergraduate degree in theater from Whitworth, thought theater could engage and inform citizens.

“This is a way to present all the different perspectives and how complex it is in an entertaining way,” Greenberg said.

Greenberg and the Center for Justice approached Kiener, and “Crossing the Line” was born. Terri Sloyer, a staff attorney at the center, said she’d been interested in finding ways to encourage more community discussion and involvement on police issues.

She said the center – which has represented Zehm’s estate in court and advocated for an independent authority to review complaints against police – did not dictate or expect a particular point of view to be represented in the show, though most everyone involved seems to support the idea of citizen oversight of police.

“The way we’re going to get meaningful resolution is for the community to come together in a discussion and evolve,” Sloyer said.

Transforming students’ raw research into a performance was a challenge, Kiener said. Some material translated smoothly into theater – interviews, for example, were shaped into dramatic monologues. But police training manuals were a different story. So in one performance, a speaker reads dull bureaucratic language detailing training requirements and practices while other students use dance and motion to exhibit their difficulty in understanding the information.

“Crossing the Line” is not intended to take a particular stand, Kiener said. It opens and closes with the line, “I don’t want to offend you. Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m just trying to ask a question.”

“We’ve tried hard to stay away from making too many statements or drawing too many conclusions,” she said.

The play emerges from a tradition of community-based theater, performances about and for a specific community or that grow out of the desire to study an issue and educate an audience. The Laramie Project, a play based on a community’s reaction to the murder of Matthew Shepard, is an example of that.

“It’s a way of trying to put theater back in the hands of the people,” Kiener said.

Though she also teaches and directs more traditional theater, community-based theater is her area of focus. She has developed a course of study in that subject within Whitworth’s theater major and has worked with other community groups on theater projects.

Frazier was involved in one of those – a project in which Whitworth students performed one-acts written by students in the Havermale alternative high school. He said he likes the concept of community theater.

“It allows me to grow as an artist, and it’s another way for theater to affect the community, to help it grow,” he said.

Tags: Otto Zehm